Planting Resiliency During COVID-19

Thursday March 12th, 2020 is when things started to get weird. This was the day toilet paper began to disappear off store shelves. It was the day that worried, never-before gardeners appeared at the plant nursery, where I work, asking about planting vegetable gardens. A shocking number were intended to provide subsistence during quarantine. Now, let’s agree to call this behavior “panic planting,” since it is driven by the fear of food insecurity rather than by true horticultural wisdom.

Here are sincere questions I have been asked:

  • Will four tomato plants be enough for a family of six?
  • Where are your spring/summer leafy vegetables?
  • What can I plant now and harvest immediately?

In normal times questions like these would make for a chuckle, but of course these are not normal times. We are all uncertain of what comes next, of each other, and even of our own hands. In light of the questions folks have been asking me personally, it is clear that many are starting at square zero.

The silver lining? Gardening is being taken less for granted. Not that this is even surprising. Gardens have been utilized in times of crisis and societal uncertainty to both comfort and feed. Think Victory Gardens, social collectives and post-recession urban farms.  Greater food security, resiliency and happiness are available now and into the future. My hope is that you are reading this essay because you want to become grow resilience at this decisive moment, to learn how to grow your own food, and also to feel better.

For now, if you are panic planting a garden, here is my advice, in this strict order:

  1. Relax. You are not going to replace the grocery store, unless you have an acre!
  2. Plant herbs. Basil, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and dill are easy to care for plants and quick to harvest. They will add variety and depth to all pantry meals.
  3. Already buying scallions? Save the bottom 2-3 inches (the white part) and root them in water. Once you see their roots growing, plant them outside.
  4. Plant peppers. 2-3 plants per person in your home. This is another easy to care for crop going into our gardens right now. Hot peppers love our summer heat and give tons of flavor in a small package. Dehydrate as many as possible (especially cayenne, Thai, and ancho) for an additional year-round kitchen spice. Pickle the rest. If you are trying to maximize what ends up on your table, be wary of planting less productive large sweet bell pepper varieties.
Figure1. Eggplant is easy to start from seed. It produces all summer and through Fall. 
Figure 2. Cayenne pepper. Chili peppers are the most productive, easy to grow peppers in the Houston climate.
  • Sow cucumber seeds in the garden all through the next month. Aim for around 4 plants per person, space allowing. Use a trellis or twine to help them grow vertically. If you are serious about feeding yourself year-round, making your own (fermented) pickles is a great place to start.
  • Buy one or two organic sweet potatoes from the grocery store. Look up how to start your own sweet potato slips at home. Plan to plant slips in May. Eat young sweet potato leaves in salads, sandwiches and soups until you harvest in the fall.
  • Start eggplant and okra seeds in pots thru April so they are ready to plant in a month. 1-3 of each per person, depending on your tastes. Eggplant and okra are both excellent, nutrient dense crops that do great during the summer.

Consider these to be the most opportune and valuable crops for your no-panic garden. If you want more planting options, refer to Urban Harvest’s Spring Planting Guide. Trying to figure out how much space you need? Look for a guide on square foot gardening to use as a reference, then cheat a little by squeezing in an extra plant or two. Nothing in nature is perfectly spaced, why should your garden be any different? Times are a little crazy, after all.

Gabriel Borja is an Urban Harvest youth garden educator, certified permaculturist and urban composter. For friendly advice he can be found at Buchanan’s Native Plants